China’s lost tribe

Hundreds of Jews settled in Kaifeng 1,100 years ago. Now, the remaining descendants seek recognition from their government as well as from Israel.

Jews in Kaifeng  521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews in Kaifeng 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Guo Yan lives in an old courtyard along an alley in the ancient city of Kaifeng in Central China’s Henan Province. Her place is a bit shabby and belies the historical significance of its location. The interior decorations give a large hint to her life’s calling: A tapestry of the Star of David hangs on the wall, a menorah sits on a table beside a window and a mezuza is glued on the door frame.
Guo is a descendant of ancient Jewish traders who 1,100 years ago traveled the Silk Road and settled in the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
“People always ask me, how can I really know that I’m Jewish?” says Guo, whose thin face and pointed chin give her a typically Chinese appearance. “For me it’s a weird question. I’ve known it all my conscious life.”
Guo doesn’t appreciate even innocent challenges from people who question the authenticity of her family’s faith.
“How do Chinese people know they are Han? How do other Jewish people around the world know they are Jews?” Guo’s unremarkable house, which is of indeterminate age, is said to have been built atop the oldest synagogue in China, which was first constructed in 1163. The synagogue was twice rebuilt in 1461 and 1653 after devastating floods of the Yellow River destroyed most of the city.
Guo says her home is the original residence attached to the synagogue that was built more than 400 years ago. The synagogue was purchased by a Christian missionary before the Communists took over China, and a hospital was built in its place.
JEWISH PERSIAN traders first settled in Kaifeng in the ninth century during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and Guo’s forefathers later were honored by the Song emperor, who gave them his royal surname, Zhao, which is her mother’s surname.
At their zenith it’s believed there were 5,000 Jews living in Kaifeng who created a distinct community that included rabbis, synagogues and other Jewish institutions. It was the largest and most influential Jewish settlement along China’s portion of the Silk Road.
The Yellow River floods that routinely devastated Kaifeng caused many residents, including dozens of Jewish families, to scatter to more hospitable regions.
Natural disasters coupled with centuries of intermarriage and cultural assimilation have reduced the Jewish population in Kaifeng to just five extended families.
Although they haven’t had a rabbi to lead them in more than 200 years, Guo says the remaining families celebrate Jewish festivals and customs as best they can remember.
“For a long time, we didn’t know Hebrew or many of the religious rituals. Without a rabbi we had no source of knowledge and we were secluded, but we’ve tried to keep our customs. We never eat pork,” Guo says.
Guo doesn’t know how many practicing Jews remain in the city, but the story of Kaifeng Jews has spread to Israel. Guo often hosts foreign visitors to her home, which doubles as a museum and house of worship.
Despite the attention from overseas, their centuries of isolation and assimilation have left them without a recognized identity. More than a decade ago the ethnicity on their ID cards was changed from Jew to Han, and neither the Israeli government nor Jewish law recognizes their Jewish ancestry.
The Jews of Kaifeng remain a lost tribe.
Walking the streets of Jerusalem, it’s obvious the former nationality and race of citizens are not big issues. Ask Israelis if they have heard of the Jews in China and you are met with mostly blank stares.
Those who know of the Kaifeng Jews believe they are not much more than a historical footnote.
Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, is one of the few who has learned of the history of China’s vanishing Jews and has helped some of them return to Israel and gain citizenship.
“According to Israel’s Law of Return, a person must be able to demonstrate at least one of their grandparents was Jewish according to Jewish Law. That is the minimum the law requires for an authorized citizenship.
However, because of the process of intermarriage and assimilation that existed in Kaifeng for at least 200 years, it is very difficult for anyone there to be able to prove that,” said Freund during an interview with the Global Times in his small office on the fourth floor of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Freund’s organization has helped Jews from India and South America immigrate to Israel.
“Unlike many other countries around the world, China was a country where Jews did not really face anti-Semitism. There was a great deal of tolerance in China for the Jews, and that tolerance and openness made it, ironically, much easier for the Jews to lose their identity,” he says.
Since 2005, the organization has assisted 17 Chinese Jews to immigrate to Israel by enrolling them in a oneor two-year conversion course that includes lessons on Jewish history, language, culture and religion.
Ten of the Chinese Jews have completed the course and have been granted Israeli citizenship. The others have not yet completed their studies.
JIN JIN arrived in Jerusalem in 2005 when she was 19.
It took her, and three other young women from Kaifeng, only a year to complete the challenging course arranged by Shavei Israel. She now shares a small room with one of her former study partners near the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and works as a tour guide for Chinese tourists.
“I didn’t really know what Israel meant to me when I was young, but I’m here to fulfill my father’s dream,” she beamed. “We really studied hard during the conversion courses, as we were the first to come. We didn’t want to bring shame to Kaifeng Jews.”
Jin has settled in Jerusalem but it may not be permanent. She feels the pull of traditional Chinese filial piety. “I want to help build bridges between the two countries, as I love them both,” Jin says. “I also want to spend more time in China to take care of my parents, as they are getting older,” says the cheerful woman.
Jin’s father has now seen four family members emigrate to Israel, including his brother’s family.
“In the 1980s, there were a lot of Western Jews visiting my home from time to time. And with their help, I began to organize Hebrew and religious lessons to our community, especially for the kids,” recalls Jin Guangtong. “Every time I went to Beijing, I would go to the biggest Xinhua bookstore on Wangfujing Street and buy out all the Hebrew books.”
The senior Jin has since retired from giving classes and feels his efforts were sometimes misunderstood. People overlooked his religious piety and thought he was doing it to benefit himself. He insists relations with the local government are good, although sometimes his religious teaching raised eyebrows with the authorities.
“Sometimes, after we had foreign visitors, the local police would come and ask what we are doing,” says Jin, adding that he told them exactly what he was up to, which seemed to be a satisfactory answer.
Guo also says her relations with the Cultural Promotion Department are good as her residence at the ancient synagogue was helping attract foreign visitors to the city. She says worried authorities asked her if she planned to visit the 2008 Shanghai Expo.
“Every Chinese is entitled to go to the Expo. Why are you asking me?” she told the government officials.
In 1999 Jin’s brother became the first emigrant of the Kaifeng Jewish community in modern times. He and three other families had been given passports and made plans to leave China for Israel, but only Jin left. When he didn’t return the local government became suspicious. Jin believes it was also the reason the Chinese ID cards of Kaifeng’s Jews were changed to show their ethnicity as Han, who make up more than 91 percent of China’s population.
“Actually, I love this country and now my daughter has carried out my dream. I have no regrets,” he says contentedly. “I’m happy that our descendants can see that we have finally been to the Promised Land.”
ALTHOUGH GUO longs to immigrate to Israel, she says she’s offended by the notion of having to take conversion courses required to become an Israeli citizen.
She feels the re-indoctrination is a denial of her heritage.
“I felt insulted when I heard from my cousin that she had to be converted. This means our Jewish identity has been totally denied,” says Guo, tears welling up in her eyes.
“In our hearts, Israel is our only homeland in this world. We’ve been living as foreigners in China for centuries. Now Israelis call us foreigners and require us to convert to become Jewish.”
Guo insists that she will go to Israel when her Jewish identity is recognized.
Receiving guests in her ancient and humble house is now her mission that fulfills her Chinese Jewish identity. Her ambition is to somehow rebuild the ancient synagogue on its original site, so the true history of Chinese Jews can be displayed to the public.
“The meaning of being a Jew is to prove the existence of God to the world. Jews are the chosen people of God, not because we are superior. God chose us to take the divine responsibilities and he only honors those who fulfilled them,” Guo says firmly.
“As long as I embody this I’m a real Jew, wherever I am.”
(Originally printed in the Global Times.)